What types of cancer does alcohol increase the risk for?
Almost everyone knows about the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, but few people realize that alcohol is also a potent carcinogen. According to research by the American Cancer Society, alcohol contributes to more than 75,000 cases of cancer per year and nearly 19,000 cancer deaths.
Alcohol is known to be a direct cause of seven different cancers: head and neck cancers (oral cavity, pharynx and larynx), esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Research suggests there may be a link between alcohol and other cancers as well, including prostate and pancreatic cancer, although the evidence is less clear-cut.
For some cancers, such as liver and colorectal, the risk starts only when people drink excessively. But for breast and esophageal cancer, the risk increases, albeit slightly, with any alcohol consumption. The risks go up the more a person drinks.
“If somebody drinks less, they are at a lower risk compared to that person who is a heavy drinker,” said Dr. Farhad Islami, a senior scientific director at the American Cancer Society. “Even two drinks per day, one drink per day, may be associated with a small risk of cancer compared to non-drinkers.”
Which condition poses the greatest risk?
The most common individual cause of alcohol-related death in the United States is alcoholic liver disease, killing about 22,000 people a year. While the risk rises as people age and alcohol exposure accumulates, more than 5,000 Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s die from alcoholic liver disease annually.
Alcoholic liver disease has three stages: alcoholic fatty liver, when fat accumulates in the organ; alcoholic hepatitis, when inflammation starts to occur; and alcoholic cirrhosis, or scarring of the tissue. The first two stages are reversible if you stop drinking entirely; the third stage is not.
Symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and jaundice — a yellow tinge to the eyes or skin. However, symptoms rarely emerge until the liver has been severely damaged.